Poetry

Blackberry Days; The Pianists

Blackberry Days

Built into a hill, the grandparents’ house

was cool and damp like the heart of a cave,

at dawn I’d take my chilly feet

to Grandma under flannelette

and eiderdown of cherry silk.

Her porridge was served with sugar and cream

fresh from the farm at the end of the road.

One summer day we took billy-cans

to where a patch of blackberries grew

around the sides of a dam gone dry:

it was deep and pebbled, pitted, rough

but the clustered berries were juicy and sweet.

We ate and plucked, staining our hands

until I strained for a clump too high.

“Look,” I urged, “the best, by far.”

Dangling above my skinny arm,

the purple bunches shone in the sun.

As Grandma stretched for the tempting fruit

she lost her footing and tumbled down

over and over down the dam wall

to its stony floor; she lay in a heap,

suddenly small, not moving at all.

“Oh, God, is she dead? Oh, please not, God,”

I prayed and cried on the dam’s high side.

She got to her feet and picked up her hat.

“I’m alive,” she said, “don’t frizzle your fat.

Never a word to your Grandfather, mind.”

Her hair was messed, there was blood on her face.

She began the climb, up out of the dam,

I peered from the edge, biting my nails

as, grunting, she clambered over the rim.

Walking slowly home, I held her hand.

The day turned dark with a gully wind

and guilt for my crime burnt deeply in—

our blackberries seemed like proof of sin:

because of greed I had almost killed.

No one was told, as far as I know.

At Easter Grandpa asked my dad

not to send me any more.

They’d started to feel their age, he said.

I see her brown face whenever I taste

a bowl of blackberries, sugar and cream.

The Pianists

These summer nights I seem to hear

my father play for me

singing along melodiously.

His outstretched arms are pale,

a tide of thinning hair recedes …

He’s bored with family life,

claims it fails to meet his needs

in a home which has become

more like a net in which he’s caught,

the music a last resort.

If only he were here, my dad,

not just the thought of him

playing an old familiar hymn

at dusk, on the old upright.

Our heavy crate of Sternberg piano

was hauled ashore from Berlin

about a hundred years ago.

Also upright, in stature at least,

he grew lax and even bolder

once given the cold shoulder.

A husband plays it now for me:

some jazz and Jelly Roll

then the blues, a bit of soul,

that thing from Acker Bilk

I love, “Stranger on the Shore”:

it always melts my thighs

until I sigh, Again! Encore!

He has the hands. Undone,

and rising from my mother’s chair,

I bend to kiss his hair.

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